Picturing Political Power Bookmark Discussion
By Janelle Fassi '21 | September 28, 2020
The New Hampshire Institute of Politics continued its Bookmark Series with an event on Sept. 23 featuring Allison Lange, PhD, who is the author of “Picturing Political Power: Images in the Women’s Suffrage Movement.” Lange, who is associate professor of history at Wentworth Institute of Technology, examined the ways in which the women’s suffrage movement was shaped by images in print media. The event was moderated by NHIOP Ambassadors Courtney Hull ‘23 and Joe Cavanaugh ‘22 in a Zoom lecture format.
What sets Lange apart from other historians is instead of analyzing letters and newspaper articles, she analyzes photographs. After minoring in Art History as an undergraduate, Lange was drawn by images of women suffragists picketing the White House. This made her wonder, what was the goal of hiring photographers and staging these photographs to the women’s suffrage movement?
The invention of the wet plate in 1851 allowed photographers to reproduce photographs to the general public. Suffragists used this invention to their advantage by making their faces known. Photography was also valuable to racist stereotypes, specifically the carte de visite, which Lange equated to baseball cards. Abolitionist and women’s rights activist Sojourner Truth used this method to portray herself as a working woman, sitting in a domestic parlor setting with a head wrap.
Suffragists in the National Association of Colored Women didn’t have the necessary resources to be heard by the elite white men in power. They refrained from polarizing tactics that the National Women’s Party used to appeal to uneducated male voters. By reshaping women suffragists into a more attractive and appealing image, the National Women’s Party got the attention they needed to win the vote.
During Susan B. Anthony's time, suffragists were thought as frumpy, disheveled, glasses-wearing, women. The voters (white, middle to upper-class men) did not like this image and did not take suffragists' message seriously. By the mid to late 1910s, the image of suffragists shifted with the introduction of prints and photographs in the media. Women were no longer frumpy but were wearing stylish hats and white dresses. This achieved the feminine purity that male voters were looking for to appeal to the masses and got white women the vote. Women were seen as attentive, attractive, well-to-do mothers who could act as caretakers for their children and vote on the same day. Interestingly enough, images of men carrying babies and groceries was seen as the apocalypse of the 20th century. This image, along with absent mothers, was used by anti-suffragist groups to discredit the women’s suffrage movement. Suffragists used contrasting images to further discredit the anti-suffrage movement.
One important image was from artist Blanche Ames, who depicted a woman in an idealized household with three children on her lap and dinner on the stove. Ames’ 1915 illustration, titled Double the Power of the Home - Two Good Votes Are Better Than One, was successful because it made the point that it was necessary to give women and mothers the vote. Ames originally designed this image to win suffrage in New York state and published it to the Women’s Journal. White, privileged mothers, like the one featured in Ames’ illustration would cast “good” votes while poor Americans, immigrants, and people of color would cast “bad” votes. Rather than absent mothers and wives, suffragists changed the commentary by reinventing themselves as feminine, strong, robust, caring mothers and domestic housekeepers. However, this reinvention came at a cost to black woman suffragists.
While Lange said this image of white suffragists as feminine caregivers puts women in a box by today's standards, these images got the work done in passing the 19th Amendment in June 1919 and getting women the vote. What was also successful was the image of women picketing the White House and parading in the streets (the same images that inspired Lange), particularly the National Women's Party from Alice Paul. Uneducated men did not want to read essays or newspaper articles of why women should get the vote but would rather look at striking images. The fact that these images were so polarizing and striking was what kept the NWP in the news. While the NWP used more polarizing tactics than the National Association of Colored Women from black suffragists like Mary Church Terrell, they could not associate with black suffragists out of fear of not getting the vote.
Lange ended the talk with a Q and A discussion, where she brought up parallels between today’s society and the women’s suffrage movement. Lange explained that the vote is still contested in 2020 and no one in the United States has a guaranteed right to vote. As states pass voter ID laws that regulate voter registration, it is important to reflect on the same barriers during the suffrage movement.